Embiid-Harden Sixers Primed for Title Contention


Amidst a crazy offseason and roster turnover galore across the league, the Philadelphia 76ers quietly put themselves in the best position to make a run at this year’s NBA title.

The Kevin Durant sweepstakes, blockbuster trades for Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray, offseason drama, and a whole host of other reasons overshadowed Philly’s efforts to retool their roster.

But in terms of which NBA team improved the most from top to bottom, the Sixers are arguably ranked first.

Last season had its ups, downs and turnarounds for Philadelphia. On a positive note, Joel Embiid submitted his second-straight MVP-caliber season, the team acquired superstar James Harden and, more importantly, dealt away the disgruntled Ben Simmons in the process. Philly submitted a 51-win regular-season campaign, their best since 2018-19.

With that said, the Sixers flamed out (yet again) by the time the playoffs came around. Embiid’s lack of health, Harden’s own injuries, and a general lack of depth resulted in the team’s second-consecutive Conference Semifinals exit. Structurally, the Sixers were lacking quality talent around Embiid and Harden.

But now, Philly is entering this season well-rested and retooled. With the Embiid-Harden duo fully healthy and armed with a newly improved roster, the Sixers could be poised to take the league by storm, even in an improving Eastern Conference.

The Cast

In the offseason, the Sixers addressed their biggest weaknesses from last season, focusing on adding regular-season depth and playoff-caliber rotation players.

Last year, the Sixers relied too much on Embiid to carry the load on both ends of the court. In the playoffs, the wear and tear took a toll on Embiid, who was too hobbled to provide MVP-caliber playoff minutes. Like Embiid, Harden also struggled to stay fully healthy. Additionally, Philly’s defense slipped compared to previous years, while the offense catered mainly around Embiid.

Recently, Philly added P.J. Tucker, Danuel House and De’Anthony Melton via trades and free agency. Combined, all three of these players provide the Sixers with upside in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Tucker (42%), House (42%) and Melton (37%) all provide the Sixers with some much-needed firepower from three. In 2021-22, Philly ranked seventh in three-point percentage but 27th in three-pointers attempted. Last season, the Sixers shipped out sharpshooter Seth Curry and traded Danny Green this offseason. Adding all three of these players gives Philly shooters who are both capable of taking and making threes.

Both Embiid and Harden operate best when the floor is spread. Especially against Miami, the Sixers struggled to generate enough space without sacrificing on the defensive end.

Philly’s new additions, however, provide upside to the team’s offensive and defensive potential. Last season, the Sixers struggle to put two-way wings on the court. Any defensive wings that did suit up were minimal threats to reliably score. Tucker, House and Melton all give Philly athletic, versatile defenders who can switch onto both guards and larger wings without gutting the offense.

Given their skill sets and playoff experiences, the Sixers now possess one of the most versatile rosters in the league.

Embiid Embodies Sixers’ Culture

Can Joel Embiid stay healthy in time for the playoffs? It’s a question that has haunted Sixers fans for what seems like an eternity.

The NBA world knows the upside Embiid brings to the table, especially for the Sixers. He’s the first or second-best center in the league depending on who you ask. He’s a two-time MVP runner-up, five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA Second Team player.

In 2022, Embiid won the scoring title in what was a career year:

Embiid Career vs. 2022:

  • Career Stats: 26.0 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 BPG, 49/34/81 shooting splits
  • 2021-2022 Stats: 30.6 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 BPG, 50/37/81 shooting splits

In 2022, Embiid became just the sixth player in NBA history to average 30+ PPG, 10+ RPG and 4+ APG in a single season. The other five players: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo. Embiid is the only player to accomplish this statistical feat post-1976.

No, this is not a typo.

The talent and upside are there for Embiid to be a franchise superstar capable of carrying a team to a deep playoff run.

But the individual statistics haven’t correlated with postseason success for the Sixers. Since Embiid’s first All-Star season in 2018, the Sixers are 25-25 in playoff basketball, never advancing past the Conference Semifinals.

Yes, the Sixers have dealt with injuries, limited rosters and even misfortune in certain seasons. After all, the Sixers were four bounces away from a different outcome versus Toronto in 2019:

At the same time, with Embiid in the middle of his prime, time is ticking for the Sixers to capitalize on a generational superstar.

Harden to Make or Break Sixers’ Season

There are tons of players on the roster who will make or break Philly’s season. James Harden has to rank first on that list.

In 21 games with the Sixers, Harden put up his usual numbers: 21.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 10.5 APG. On the court, however, there were a handful of concerns about Harden’s non-statistical impact.

Harden dealt with multiple lower-body injuries and ailments that clearly limited his effectiveness. In the past two seasons, Harden has missed 45 total games. Considering the number of regular-season and playoff miles under Harden’s odometer, it’s a concerning sign for a player entering his age-33 season.

The decline across the field in efficiency is equally as much of a concern for the Sixers. In 2021-22, Harden shot just over 40% from the field and a dismal 33% from three. The biggest drop-off has the number of free throws Harden attempts per game. After averaging nearly 11 free throws a night between 2015 and 2020, he’s now averaging under eight free throws per contest in the past two seasons.

There’s still a case to be made for Harden having a bounceback season. For starters, he won’t need to carry as much of a load compared to his tenure with both Houston and Brooklyn. Additionally, he’ll (for the first time in a long time) have had a full offseason to recover and rest up. Given Philly’s depth this year, the Sixers can save Harden for when they need him most in the playoffs.

Harden could be on the decline. Shooting guards who rely on attacking the basket tend to fall off, especially after playing the minute total he has so far. But Harden is still an elite playmaker, shot-creator and three-point marksman. Next to Embiid, this could be the Northeastern version of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in 1995.

East Outlook

Considering the rest of the East, the Sixers quietly have a chance to be the best team in the conference this season. One could make the case Philly ranks as one of the few underrated teams across the league.

After winning 51 games in 2021-2022, Vegas set the Sixers’ win-loss betting line at 50.5. Considering Philly’s offseason and improved health, that’s under-selling how much better the team’s ceiling really is.

Looking around the league, the Sixers rank in the same tier as the Celtics and Bucks. Even then, there are still concerns with both those teams given their respective offseason.

Philly will be entering a critical season in the Embiid Era. The time is now for this team to capitalize with Embiid in his prime, Harden with just enough gas in the tank, and a roster that (finally) compliments their franchise player.

The Sixers quietly put themselves in prime positions to contend this season. Given their talent and upside, expect the team to loudly be one of the best teams in the league this season.

About Dominic Chiappone

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